READING, Pa. – There may be something to that old cliché that says “when the going gets tough. the tough get going” because when faced with his first major playoff challenge, Steve Torrence went all John Wayne on his Top Fuel rivals Sunday in the 34th annual Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
With his lead cut from 197 points to just 20 by those responsible for “adjusting” the points in advance of the six-race Countdown to the Championship, Torrence saw it reduced even further – to just 10 points, after a near perfect qualifying performance by rival Clay Millican.
Nevertheless, the 35-year-old cancer survivor from Kilgore never blinked, not even when he lost the choice of lanes to Millican ahead of a pressure-packed semifinal that could have knocked him out of the Top Fuel points lead for the first time since Feb. 24th.
Instead, he used a sizeable reaction time advantage (.068 of a second to .085) to make his slightly slower track time of 3.798 a winner over Millican’s 3.785. The margin at the finish was a virtually indiscernible .001 of a second.
After the semifinal drama, the talented Texan’s final round romp over eight-time series champion Tony Schumacher was almost anticlimactic even though it secured his category-best sixth win of the current campaign and 14th over the last two seasons.
The upshot is that Torrence will send his potent Capco Contractors Top Fuel dragster into this weekend’s 21st AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals in Madison, Ill. (just across the river from St. Louis) leading both Millican and Schumacher by 50 points in the battle for the $500,000 series title that just slipped through his grasp a year ago.
“That was a good start,” Torrence said, “but it’s just one race. We were in this same position last year (after earning runner-up honors at the Dodge Nationals). The only time it’s really important to be No. 1 is on Monday of the (awards) banquet. That’s been our goal all year and obviously we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Clay and them are coming after us.”
Not satisfied with his reaction time numbers the past few faces, Torrence stepped up at Maple Grove where he was .087, .086, .068 and, finally, against Schumacher, .036.
“About time I started doing my job,” joked the 22-time pro tour winner. “These Capco boys are bad ass and when I’m not on my game, they’ve always got my back so it’s good to give ‘em some payback. It’s hard out here and it’s harder when you’ve got a target on your back. It takes everybody pulling his weight so, yeah, this feels real good.”
In round two, Team Capco had a solid-if-not-spectacular 3.812 took care of business and sent Torrence into the monster match-up with Millican, the former IHRA champion who this year has emerged as a bona fide contender for the NHRA title.